Tom Koch: Provide real alternatives rather than a fatal injection

This article was published by the Huffington Post on November 30, 2015.

Tom Koch

Tom Koch

By Tom Koch, who is an ethicist, author and gerontologist.

The first person who asked me to kill him was my then 72-year old father. If he couldn't work and couldn't drive, what was there left to live for, he asked. "Lots," I said in refusing his request. "I'll show you."

He died peacefully in his sleep five years later.

My oldest brother, seeing our father in decline, asked me to promise to kill him as "an act of brotherly love" if he ever became infirm. During a period of depression resulting from an adverse prescription drug reaction, he refused hospital-based treatment. Instead he put his affairs in order and killed himself, suicide by pistol.

There have been others who wanted my help in dying after amputations, cancer diagnoses, while struggling with multiple sclerosis, paralyzing strokes, and a range of other incapacities.

I told each my job was to help them live as fully as possible despite their limits. That meant fighting for the best possible counseling, palliative (pain control), rehabilitative, psychiatric and social services available. I told each of them that before they gave up, they should try a life that while different could still be worthwhile.

In striking down the section of the Criminal Code that makes "aid in dying" illegal, the Supreme Court justices argued last February for individual autonomy and choice. The courts "pro-choice" judgment made overly simple what is in fact complex. If choice is our goal, we first need to address the reasons people with limits think life has lost its meaning. That's the basis of current challenges to Quebec's law legalizing what the Dutch call physician-assisted or directed termination.

A 74-year-old woman told me she doesn't want to die in pain as others have. "If I get there, end me," she said recently. I told her (and have told others) palliative medicine has come a long way and promised her pain would be treated. And, yes, I can make that promise given the state of medications today if -- a big if -- they're administered by professionals expert in their use.

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